TO BE A DEARBORNE
The trouble was I got way too comfortable in the old man’s house. Otherwise I’d have never opened the front door.
I’d been lying on the couch in the sitting room with an old tartan rug over me, reading one of the old man’s detective books by a fella called Mickey Spillane, and I must have dozed off. When the doorbell rang, I was dreaming I was a small boy running fast to catch up with St Martin De Porres and his little dog… and before I knew what I was doing I was out in the dusty hallway, unlocking the front door.
It was pelting rain outside and the woman on the doorstep looked soaked. She was oldish and wore one of those bright yellow jackets that chuggers wear, over a black raincoat. A heavy-looking black bag hung over her shoulder. Even her glasses were wet.
‘Sorry, I have no spare change,’ I said, and went to pull the door closed as fast as I could.
‘Oh please, hang on. I’m not looking for money. I’m your Census Enumerator.’ She smiled and held up an ID she was wearing around her neck. It looked official, with her photo on it – which freaked me out.
‘Senses?’ I hadn’t a clue what she was on about.
‘Everyone in Ireland is being counted on Census Night,’ she said. It was next Sunday 24th April and she’d called heaps of times and posted three calling cards through the letterbox and sure enough they were lying on the hall floor amidst the fliers and takeaway menus… She went on about how the information was used for statistics only and it wouldn’t take a minute… I thought I saw a curtain twitch across the street, so I brought her in and shut the door.
‘Good to get out of the rain,’ she sighed, and walked into the sitting room. She sat down on the couch and plonked the bag on the floor beside her. ‘To be honest, I’d never have taken this job if I’d known how hard it would be.’ She took a tissue out of her pocket and wiped her glasses.
The Mickey Spillane book was on the coffee table, next to the old man’s pipe.
‘You like crime novels?’ she asked.
‘Yeah. I’ve kind of got addicted to them.’ That was true. There was no TV, only an ancient wooden box radio. That’s why I’d started reading the old lad’s detective books, which normally I would never do. I’d tried Sherlock Holmes and some of the Ruth Rendells, but I liked the Mickey Spillane ones best – they were full of action and kind of sexy in an old-fashioned way.
She unzipped the bag and got out an official-looking book. ‘This is 10 Liberty Terrace, isn’t it?’
‘And what’s your name?’
‘Martin,’ I said. I still wasn’t thinking straight.
‘Is this your family home?’
‘No, it’s only me here.’
‘Right. All I have to do is ask you a few questions, then I’ll come back and collect the form after Census night.’
‘Form? I can’t fill out no form.’
‘Well, it’s the law, I’m afraid, but it’s easy to fill out.’ She looked apologetic.
‘See, it’s my Granddad’s house,’ I said, inspired.
‘Is your Grandad in?’
‘What’s his name?’
‘William Dearborne.’ Thank fuck I knew it; the old lad had his name written inside the cover of all his books.
She wrote it down. ‘Is it just the two of you living here, Martin?’
‘Yeah. I keep him company like.’
She ticked a box and looked up at me again. ‘Could I have a contact number?’
‘Ah, my phone is banjaxed at the moment.’
‘Do you have a landline?’
‘Oh yeah.’ There was an old-fashioned phone in the kitchen. ‘I’ll get the number.’ I called it out to her, but I swapped around the last two numbers.
If there was no one here on Sunday night she said she’d have to fill out a Form E instead so I said no it was okay and she took out a form and wrote some stuff on it and went on telling me to mark a line for yes rather than a tick and use a black or blue pen and that in a hundred years people could look up their ancestors because of the Census and I said ‘What do I care, sure I’ll be dead myself then,’ but in the end I was saying yeah I’d explain the whole thing to my Grandad and she could come round to collect the form the following Friday and I let her out. Then I locked the front door and went into the kitchen.
After that, I was in bits. The Census woman seemed nice enough, but if she guessed I was squatting she’d probably put the law on me. She’d be back next week and the thought of sleeping rough again made me feel sick.
See, my stepfather is an abusive fucker. Behind Mam’s back he’d always tell me I was a useless thick. After Mam died, he got worse. Martin, you’re named after a black saint. D’you know why? Because your whore of a mother didn’t know at the time whether she was having a black baby or a white one. So, a week ago, I hit him. I’d have had no bother shooting him dead right then, like Mike Hammer in the Mickey Spillane books, only I promised Mam before she died that I’d always try to keep out of trouble. Anyway, I didn’t have a gun.
So I ran out the door instead and walked around a while. When I crept in, he was snorting and snoring on the couch as usual, beer cans skittled on the floor. I remembered Mam used to hide cash in the freezer – her ‘frozen assets’ she used to call it – it was our secret. I found €50 inside her dummy bag of frozen peas, and for a second I thought I’d start bawling. Then I sneaked upstairs, packed a few things and fecked off.
I got the bus to Cork and went straight to the dole office, but I couldn’t fill out the form. ‘You need a PPS number and your birth cert,’ the woman said. When she found out my age, she told me I couldn’t get the dole until I was 18. Eight whole weeks away. I was gutted.
For a few nights, I slept in the entrance to Penney’s – there’s a security camera above it so if someone pisses or pukes on you or beats you up, at least it’ll be on film.
Then I was in a squat near the Mercy Hospital, but there was a fight between some foreign fellas, so the police came and kicked us out. Next day the place was boarded up. A fella told me that if I went to the homeless shelter they’d call up the Child Welfare and put me into a home, so no way was I going to chance going there.
Back out sleeping rough, I was more scared than I was the first time, now I knew what could go down, and all that night I hardly slept a wink. The next day, hardly able to keep me eyes open, I was begging in Daunt Square when I had a stroke of luck. Two batty old ladies were chatting about some old fella who’d kicked the bucket above in Liberty Terrace.
‘There for three days, God help him.’
‘Desperate, wasn't it? Sure, only for the neighbours noticing the lights were on day and night, his body wouldn’t have been found for weeks.’
I scoped the terrace out for ages. Number 10 was empty alright. At the end of a terrace with a small alleyway out to the back, no lock on the side gate, it was perfect. I broke the kitchen window and climbed in.
The best thing of all was the old man’s kitchen. He had two fridge freezers. One worked and the other didn’t. There was only sour milk and old cheese in the fridge part of the one that worked, but there were heaps of ready meals in the freezer part.
I was starving and drenched so I put a curry into the old microwave before I checked out the second fridge. A handwritten sign ‘pharmacy’ was sellotaped on it, but all there was inside was bottles of whiskey, cans of coke, a box of mixed biscuits, four packets of Scots Clan, cod liver oil and a packet of paracetamol. When I burst out laughing it sounded strange, because I hadn’t laughed in ages.
By the time the Census Lady called, I’d made fearsome inroads on all the food in Number 10. Thank God there was some whiskey and coke left in the pharmacy so I poured myself a drink to calm me down. It must have been reading all those detective books that inspired me, because after a while I figured I’d try to fill out the form as if the old man was still alive, so I could keep the Census woman off my back for a few weeks. So I went rootling around the house for clues to make it look legit, and found them in a worn brown suitcase on top of the wardrobe in the old man’s bedroom.
Take your time, I told myself, like Mam used to tell me. I wrote the form in pencil first so I wouldn’t feck it up.
Eleven questions about the house – it wasn’t easy to figure out when it was built, but I could handle all the rest.
Person 1: William Dearborne. Date of Birth – no problem, I’d found his birth cert in the suitcase. Widowed, definitely. I had to make up some of the other answers but I kept it simple, though I dithered for ages about the questions on health, since he was actually dead.
Person 2: Martin Dearborne. I was Martin alright, after St Martin De Porres, but I was no Dearborne, and I’d never had a Grandad.
I signed William’s name on the form with a shaky black signature. I copied it from the one he wrote in his crime books.
The form looked grand except there was no space to list all the other stuff about William, about the time he’d worked on the oil rigs, about his wife who died so young, and about the little dog Rusty he used to have. I’d already guessed he must have had a dog, before I saw the photos, because a red leather collar and lead still hung from a hook in the hall. I liked old William; he wasn’t just some sad old fuck. I wouldn’t have minded having a grandad just like him.
The Census lady called back the following Friday.
‘I can’t tell you how many people make mistakes on these forms, but this is perfect,’ she said.
The relief was massive. So was the thought that in one hundred years someone might wonder about William Dearborne and his grandson Martin, but it would take some detective to figure it out.
I had to go back to my mother’s house one last time. I found a key for the back door, so I patched up the kitchen window a bit and locked up. Then I caught the bus back to Ballincollig. It was a Monday morning so I hoped my stepfather would be out. He was at home, in stained pajamas, watching TV, when I arrived. ‘What you doing here you little pup? he said. I said nothing, just went upstairs and searched in Mam’s room until I found my birth certificate and everything else I thought I’d need. ‘You can fuck right off,’ was all he said, as I was leaving.
On the day I turned 18, I woke up early to get to the dole office and be first in line. It was pelting rain outside, but I didn’t care. All I wanted was to fill out the forms and get myself sorted. I was a man now and a small bit of rain wouldn’t hurt me.
Back at Liberty Terrace, I checked the street until the coast was clear, then I snuck round the back of Number 10 as usual and used the key to open the kitchen door. I made myself a cheese and onion sandwich and a cup of tea and got stuck into another detective book. I was just at a good bit where the private eye was getting off with a woman he called a dame when I heard the front door opening. Next thing, an old man was standing in the kitchen staring at me.
‘Who the fuck are you?’ he said.
When I stood up, I knocked over the cup of tea. I would have run for the front door only I was too scared to move.
It was William Dearborne and he had his fists up, ready to punch me.
‘I thought you were dead,’ I said.
‘Christ almighty, who told you I was dead?’ He looked fierce tough for an old fella.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I heard a man in Liberty Terrace conked out from a stroke and I thought it was you.’
He lowered his fists and stared hard at me.
‘I was sleeping rough, so I figured there was an empty house… I only needed a place til I could get the dole.’
‘You little bollocks,’ he said. ‘Sit down there. I’m going to call the Guards.’
But he stood there, looking at me, instead of picking up the old-fashioned phone right beside us on the kitchen table. Then he said, ‘What age are you anyway?’
’18,’ I said. ‘Today’s my birthday.’
‘Well, birthday boy,’ he said. ‘You’ve made a right mess of my house.’
I looked around and saw that he was right. My mother would have killed me if she’d seen the state of the place. She was always on at me about tidying up after myself. I’d patched up the broken window with a bit of plywood but it looked like what it was, a total bodge job. There were dirty plates in the sink, a greasy frying pan on the hob, bottles, cans, crusts and crumbs on the kitchen counter. On the table, congealed microwave containers, a carton of milk, the remains of the Tesco’s Finest Lasagne I’d had for breakfast.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘You’re not leaving until you’ve cleared up after you.’
He still had a fierce look on his face, but it seemed like he wasn't going to call the cops. So I did exactly what I was told. I gathered all the rubbish and put it in the bin. Then he made me get a cloth and wipe down all the surfaces. He ordered me to get the vacuum cleaner from under the stairs (I never knew there was one) and made me hoover all the downstairs, then all the upstairs and then I had to wash the kitchen floor. He made me put the towels in the washing machine and he’d have had made me wash the bedlinen as well, he said, but it was obvious I’d slept on the couch. He asked me all sorts of questions in between barking out orders, and I told him whatever he wanted to know. By the time I was finished I was knackered but at least Mr. Dearborne wasn't as furious as he’d been in the beginning. He was cranky all right, but he wasn't a bastard.
‘Right,’ he said, then. ‘I could murder some fish and chips. You, go off to Jackie Lennox’s and get two fish suppers with mushy peas. And some drink from the Offie across the road.’ He hesitated. ‘A big bottle of 7-Up maybe.’
He handed me €30 and told me to get my ass back pronto before the chips got cold. I ran most of the way there and raced back even faster, the warm bundle of food in one hand, a bottle of 7-Up in a plastic bag in the other.
When I got back, I pressed the front doorbell once, like a normal person, and he came out and raised his eyebrows before he let me back in.
We sat at the kitchen table while he took out plates and knives and forks, ketchup, salt and vinegar. He put the food on the plates and poured 7-Up into two glasses. He told me to eat my supper while it was hot, like Mam used to do.
‘You must have run fast,’ he said.
‘I did, Mr. Dearborne. Thanks for the food.’
‘It’s a good chipper,’ he said.
It was. The fish in batter was melt in the mouth, the chips were proper chips and the mushy peas were just the job.
‘I phoned Bernice Callinan,’ said Mr. Dearborne, in between bites. ‘She told me Albert Clarke from Number 1 is in a coma. Locked-in-Syndrome, is what they call it. He might as well be dead, apparently.’
He forked another chip, dipped it into the pool of ketchup on his plate and shoved it in his mouth.
I stopped eating. I wasn't sure what to say. I’d picked the wrong house. Maybe my stepfather had a point. Only a complete thick could make such a balls of it.
Mr. Dearborne swallowed another mouthful of food and reached for his glass.
‘There was something rotten about Albert,’ he said. ‘I didn’t like him. But even so, it’s a terrible thing.’ Then he smiled at me. ‘At least I’m still alive and kicking.’
It was then and only then it dawned on me that he was exactly the same William Dearborne as the one that I had in my head all along.
‘Sorry for giving you a fright,’ I said. ‘I never meant to.’
‘Apology accepted.’ He lifted his glass and looked me straight in the eye. ‘Cheers,’ he said.
I raised my glass as he bumped his gently against mine.
‘I’ll pay for the broken window. Honestly. And the stuff I used.’
He took another slug of 7-Up and put his glass down. He turned his head to glance around the kitchen. It looked better now than when I broke in, apart from the busted window.
‘And how will you do that?’
‘Begging,’ I said. My stepfather always asked trick questions, but I figured Mr. Dearborne wasn’t like him and I’d be as well off to tell the truth.
’Only until I get my dole. She said it would take maybe two weeks.’
He forked a bit of fish and dipped it in the tartare sauce, but he didn't eat it. he just stared at it a while. The silence kind of got to me so I tried to think of something to say. I remembered that he used to have a dog.
‘Do you like dogs, Mr. Dearborne?’ I asked, by way of conversation.
‘Call me Bill,’ he said. ‘And yes, I do. I loved my dog.’ He put his fork down and looked as if he was thinking about Rusty.
‘I guessed you had one, because of the collar and lead out in the hall. We had a dog once too. I was only small then, but I was mad about him.’
He stretched his legs out under the table and sat back in his chair.
’I should have got another dog after Rusty,’ he said. ‘But I couldn't bear to. I was afraid I’d get too fond of the next dog and then he’d die and then I’d be alone again, and I’d feel even worse.’
He sighed then and looked across the table at me for what seemed like a long time. Then he spoke.
‘Would you like to stay here until you get sorted?’ He looked down again at his plate of food and waited.
The kitchen was warm, and my belly was full, and I had nowhere else to go. But still, I could hardly believe my luck.
‘Could I really?’ I said.
‘Sure, it’ll tide you over anyway.’ He looked up at me again, then picked up his glass and took another slurp of lager.
’Thanks a million, Mr. Dearborne.’ I said, and I meant it.
‘Call me William,’ he said. ‘One thing though. You can't go out begging while you’re here.’
I thought about that for a minute. ’I could do some jobs around the place for you, earn my keep, like. Go to the shops and do the hoovering.’
‘It’s a deal,’ he said.
’If you got a dog, I could walk the dog for you.’
’I suppose you could,’ said William.